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Rare Books: Book Auction Catalogues

A guide to finding and using rare books in the Bodleian Library


Please note that the following remarks refer ONLY to sales of antiquarian printed books. For pictures and other works of art, readers are requested to refer to the appropriate section of the LibGuide for ‘Art & Architecture’.

The reference collections in the Weston Library are currently under review, including the provision of auction catalogues and related reference works. If you have any questions or comments please contact: 

A scene at an Oxford book auction (1747) by William Green Junior

Oil painting. A large group of men in academic dress gathered in front of a wall of bookshelves, reading and discussing volumes. To the left an auctioneer in green tailcoat stands at a plinth.

History of Auction Catalogues and the Bodleian

The appearance of auction-sale catalogues (along with descriptive library catalogues) in large numbers began in the early eighteenth century, especially in France (although the first known auction to have taken place was in 1676, being the sale of the library of Dr Lazarus Seaman, Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge). It soon became clear that such catalogues would be of considerable importance as tools of reference and research, and this led members of the Bodleian’s staff from the librarianship of Dr Bulkeley Bandinel (1813–60) to try to bring together ‘the scattered and somewhat casual accumulations of earlier centuries … to be supplemented by the preservation of current catalogues (after use) and the addition of others by deliberate purchase …’ (D. M. R[ogers], ‘Book Auction-sale Catalogues’,  Bodleian Library Record, 10 (1981), 269–70, at p. 269).

In more recent times, the Library’s collections have increased still further. Some of those from the United Kingdom have come in under Legal Deposit (particularly the catalogues of the larger auction houses); individual booksellers have also sent copies of their latest catalogues to the Library, to allow staff to buy books for the Library’s collections; and some (especially those of older sales, so antiquarian books in their own right) have reached the Bodleian as part of gifts and bequests. These catalogues, therefore, may thus be ‘working copies’ for the staff, personal copies of scholars and collectors, or copies for the record, all gathered together for the use of those working on the history of books and collections.

Finding Auction Catalogues

Historically, the Bodleian Library placed its sale catalogues in runs, under the name of the bookseller or auctioneer, rather than listing them under the name of the original owner. For example, the catalogue entry for Sotheby’s on SOLO is:

The old decimal shelfmark is 2591 d.1. A decision was taken about fifteen years ago to catalogue each separate item individually. For example, the Sotheby’s catalogues for the auction sales of the Macclesfield library from Shirburn Castle, now appear in the following way on SOLO:

David Pearson’s Provenance Research in Book History: a Handbook (London, 1994, repr. with new introduction, 1998), pp. 132–70, is helpful to those new to the field. In addition to his introduction on the history and importance of sale catalogues, he has notes on collections of sale catalogues (those at the Bodleian are on p. 146), and sections on individual auction houses and booksellers (pp. 147–69), including references to the Bodleian’s holdings, with shelfmarks. Since the publication of Pearson’s work, the location of ‘Room 132’ has ceased to exist. The books recorded by Pearson as being on the open shelves of Room 132 have been re-located to the Weston Library. Readers wishing to consult the card indexes mentioned by Pearson (the Sotheby’s book and manuscript sales between 1900 and c.1988, arranged by vendor; the non-book auction catalogues from 1686 to 1978, arranged chronologically; and the modern booksellers’ catalogues) should contact Rare Books ( well in advance of any proposed visit.

Finding Aids

David Pearson’s Provenance Research in Book History: a Handbook (London, 1994, repr. with new introduction, 1998) refers to various printed finding-aids for auction and booksellers’ catalogues in the Bodleian: 


  • List of Catalogues of English Book Sales 1676–1900 now in The British Museum (London, 1915), for which see Pearson pp. 139–40. This covers the BM’s collections, as they were in 1915, and only includes auction sales. The Bodleian possesses two annotated copies: one is an interleaved copy (shelfmark 2590 d. Lond. 1 c.24), partially annotated with Bodleian shelfmarks. The other copy is a photostat (shelfmark X.2.14/BML) of the extensively annotated copy which belonged to the Cambridge bibliographer A. N. L. Munby (see Pearson p. 140), marked up more fully with Bodleian shelfmarks.

  • Munby himself, along with Lenore Coral, compiled British Book Sale Catalogues, 1676–1800: a Union List (London, 1977), listing retail and auction sales chronologically (Pearson p. 139). The Bodleian’s copy of this is on the open shelves at X.2.14/MUN.

  • Robin Alston’s Inventory of Sale Catalogues of Named and Attributed Owners of Books Sold by Retail or Auction 1676–1800: an Inventory of Sales in the British Isles, America, United States, Canada, and India, 2 vols (St Philip, Barbados, 2010). This work, by the former Head of the School of Library, Archive and Information Studies at University College London, discusses (at pp. 4–5 of his preface) its predecessors. Alston updates and augments the work of his predecessors by including, for example, more detail in the entries, and adding the dates of the person whose books were being sold, a full title, and a list of extant copies. The Bodleian’s copy is at X.2.14/ALS.

  • The Bodleian also has a relatively scarce resource, namely a copy of the published microfilms of the marked-up Sotheby’s catalogues (Films 866); boxes may be ordered via SOLO in the usual way. At X.2.14/SOT.1 is ‘Sotheby’s Catalogue of Sales: A Guide to Microfilm Collections’. This covers sales from 1734 to 1945. Within each year, the sales are divided by category, for example, ‘autograph letters’, ‘books’, ‘manuscripts, western’, ‘manuscripts, oriental’, etc.

  • Details of some book auctions (both British and continental) may be found in Frits Lugt, Répertoire des catalogues des ventes publiques intéressant l’art ou la curiosité, 3 vols (The Hague, 1938–64) [shelfmark X.2.14/LUG]], although Lugt focuses mainly on sales of art and objects. 

  • Further information on American auction catalogues may be found in George L McKay, American Book Auction Catalogues 1713–1934: a Union List (New York, 1937) [shelfmark X.2.14/McK]

  • Still looking for information on book auctions? Check out the X.3 section on the open shelves in the Weston Library

Bodleian Named Collections of Auction Catalogues

Several named rare book collections have particularly strong holdings of sale catalogues. These include ‘Mus. Bibl’ (‘Museum Bibliographicum’). Mus. Bibl. III contains over 800 volumes (but most consisting of many more individual items), being auction, booksellers’ and library catalogues from the 17th to the 19th centuries. They were brought together during the middle years of the nineteenth century, some from existing collections, others from purchases (including many from the dispersal of the collector Richard Heber’s library between 1834 and 1836), or current catalogues of the period. At X.2.14/SMI is a manuscript catalogue, apparently compiled by P. M. Smith of ‘Sotheby’s sale catalogues in the Mus. Bibl. collections, etc.’

Francis Douce’s bequest in 1834 contained many copies of catalogues marked up by Douce himself, with the names of purchasers of books, and the prices they paid. More recent acquisitions rich in catalogues have included the Broxbourne collection, with material for the important work on catalogues by Albert Ehrman and Graham Pollard, The Distribution of Books by Catalogue (Roxburghe Club, 1965); and the considerable collection of catalogues acquired by the Bodleian as part of the bequest of Dr Brian Lawn in 2001.

Among the listings of modern book sales available in the Bodleian, mention should be made of the Jahrbuch der Auktionspreise für Bücher, Handschriften und Autographen, available from 1950 up to the present (current shelfmark Per. 2592 d.118).

And finally...

Below is the spreadsheet of raw data regarding Sotheby's and Christie's catalogues. This was created for librarians but it might be useful as a last resort!